Workers Vanguard No. 980
13 May 2011
Egypt and the Near East
Permanent Revolution vs. Arab Nationalism
(Young Spartacus pages)
We print below an edited and slightly excerpted New York Spartacus Youth Club forum given on March 9 at the City College of New York (CCNY).
Major events are rocking the Near East and North Africa. What we have to offer is a revolutionary internationalist program, captured in the placard here that says, “Down With the Oil Sheiks, Emirs, Kings, Colonels and Zionist Rulers—Workers to Power! For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!” This talk is going to motivate that perspective, which is a Marxist perspective. It is going to primarily focus on Egypt, the history of the Palestine/Israel question and the long and brutal role that imperialism has played in this region.
Recently Obama, the current U.S. imperialist Commander-in-Chief, has been praising the fight for “democracy.” But during the upheaval in Egypt, Obama expressed support for Hosni Mubarak’s regime, especially the “reforms” promised by Vice President Omar Suleiman, who has long played a key role in Washington’s “war on terror” torture program. The U.S. has poured $1.3 billion a year into arming the Egyptian military, as it does to prop up bloody dictators worldwide. After Mubarak resigned, Obama said that the U.S. stands for “a credible transition to a democracy.”
What U.S. imperialism means by “democracy” are the corpses of more than one million Iraqis who died as a result of the 2003 invasion and occupation, as well as the imperialist barbarism inflicted by U.S./NATO forces upon the peoples of Afghanistan. Last week, NATO aircraft shot down nine young boys collecting firewood in Afghanistan. The sheiks, despots and strongmen that litter the Near East, along with the Israeli rulers, act as U.S. imperialism’s agents. Take a recent back-page ad in the New York Times for Our Last Best Chance by King Abdullah of Jordan. The ad quoted Bill Clinton, who as president bombed and starved Iraq for eight long years, praising the Jordanian monarch—the same monarch who today suppresses protests against his rule. So don’t be fooled by these imperialist war criminals, whether in Democratic or Republican clothing. Now they are threatening Libya and have already implemented sanctions; we say imperialists hands off! [See “Defend Libya Against Imperialist Attack!” WV No. 977, 1 April.]
It’s against these imperialists’ agents that the masses in Tunisia and Egypt have been revolting, fed up with unemployment, rising food prices and the widespread corruption of the Arab capitalist rulers and their families and cronies. Inspired by the protests in Tunisia, protesters in Egypt courageously faced down a massive crackdown that left hundreds dead. After nearly 30 years of governing Egypt with an iron fist, Mubarak stepped down following 18 days of unprecedented upheaval throughout the country, with demonstrators unleashing their fury at the regime by targeting police and security buildings as well as those belonging to the ruling National Democratic Party. These protests were significantly topped off by a wave of labor strikes.
I’m sure that everyone saw the mass celebrations of millions of people that erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in cities throughout the country over what seemed like the end of a brutal dictatorship that ruled under emergency law, imprisoning and disappearing its opponents in Egypt’s vast torture chambers. But while Mubarak is no longer in power, the central core of Egypt’s bonapartist capitalist state apparatus, the military, is now directly in power. A doctor in Cairo was quoted as saying, “They cut off the head, but the body is still moving.”
The military announced the dissolution of Mubarak’s sham parliament and the formation of a panel to “amend” the equally sham constitution. They have denounced the continuing strikes as leading to “negative results” and ordered workers to return to their jobs. Two weeks ago it was reported that soldiers beat protesters and burned down a reconstituted tent camp in Tahrir Square. In capitalist society, which is divided into antagonistic social classes whose interests are irreconcilably opposed, the question of the state is a crucial one. Together with the police, courts and prisons, the army is at the core of the capitalist state, which is an apparatus for the violent suppression of the working class and the oppressed. Above all, the drive to “restore stability” in Egypt is aimed at the working class.
The strikes launched by tens of thousands of workers amid the anti-Mubarak protests continued after Mubarak’s fall. These included some 6,000 workers on the Suez Canal, through which 8 percent of world trade travels, although Canal pilots continued to work, which meant ships kept moving. Thousands of textile and steel workers also went on strike in Suez, which saw some of the most militant protests. In the wake of Mubarak’s fall, strikes spread to steel workers outside the capital, postal workers, textile workers and thousands of oil and gas workers.
What is necessary in this situation is for the working class to emerge as an independent force and lead the struggles of the region’s unemployed youth, urban poor, peasants, women and other oppressed sectors fighting for freedom. Why the working class? Because this is the one class with the social power and historic interest to overthrow capitalism. In fighting for economic demands, such as against poverty-level wages, the working class is demonstrating the unique position it holds in making the wheels of the capitalist economy turn. This social power, to stop and take over those wheels, gives the working class the potential to lead all the impoverished masses in struggle against their unbearable oppression.
The Trap of Egyptian Nationalism
There is a lot of empty, classless talk about how “we are all Egyptian” (I guess minus Mubarak) and the “people’s revolution.” Other than the upper echelons of the Tunisian and Egyptian bourgeoisies, these upheavals have been characterized by an outpouring of all social classes. In demonstrations, Egyptian flags have been everywhere. What this reflects is a nationalist consciousness that is also expressed in widespread illusions that the army is a “friend of the people.” These illusions are a deadly danger to the working people and the oppressed.
From the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers’ coup in 1952, which toppled the monarchy and ended the British occupation of the country, the army has been viewed as the guarantor of Egyptian national sovereignty. In fact, the military has been the backbone of one dictatorship after another since that time. In 1952 it was mobilized by Nasser to shoot down textile strikers in Kafr Al-Dawwar near Alexandria. In 1977 it was mobilized by Anwar el-Sadat to “restore order” after a two-day countrywide upheaval over the price of bread. Today, despite claiming that it did not oppose the anti-Mubarak demonstrators, the military arrested hundreds and tortured many. We say: Down with the emergency law! Free all victims of state repression!
There has also been a lot of talk about the Facebook and Twitter “revolution,” which I guess the military is now a part of since they post communiqués on their Facebook page. But, as a young comrade said at a recent event, “The working class needs a vanguard party, not a Facebook profile!” One of the technologically savvy youth leaders, Google exec Wael Ghonim, was arrested for using Facebook to organize the early protests. He epitomizes the logic of a bourgeois-nationalist program: Upon his release, he kissed his captors, praised the “sincerity” of the military and told striking workers that now is not the time to fight for $100 a month if you only make $70. He is speaking for the capitalist class and fighting for its interests.
Nationalism arose in connection with the development of capitalism, which strove to establish unified national markets. While nationalism in Egypt is fueled by a history of imperialist subjugation, it has long served the bourgeois rulers by obscuring the class divide between the tiny layer of filthy rich at the top and the brutally exploited and impoverished workers and peasants at the bottom. Nationalism is a key obstacle to revolutionary proletarian consciousness. We oppose those fake socialists who promote bourgeois nationalism.
The Egyptian youth who initiated the “January 25 Revolution” have been hailed by one and all, including bourgeois oppositionists and the state-run media that had, until the fall of Mubarak, denounced them as foreign agents. Among these mainly petty-bourgeois youth, a good number have been animated not only by their own grievances but particularly by the struggles of the Egyptian proletariat. I mentioned the recent strikes, but what rarely gets reported is that, over the last ten years, the Egyptian workers have engaged in over 3,000 strikes, sit-ins and other actions, involving over two million workers. These strikes were carried out in defiance of the corrupt leadership of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was established by Nasser in 1957 as an arm of the state.
The petty bourgeoisie is an intermediate class comprising many layers with disparate interests, from students to peasants. It is incapable of advancing a coherent, independent perspective and will necessarily fall under the sway of one of the two main classes of capitalist society: the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Among the militant youth who showed incredible courage in taking on the Mubarak regime, those committed to fighting on behalf of the oppressed must be won to the revolutionary internationalist program of Trotskyism. Such elements will be crucial to forging a revolutionary party, which, like Lenin’s Bolsheviks, will be founded through a fusion of the most advanced workers with declassed intellectuals won to the side of the working class.
In Egypt, this party must fight for the program of permanent revolution. What do we mean by permanent revolution? This theory embodies the experience of the 1917 Russian Revolution. What we are talking about is the seizure of power by the working class in countries of uneven and combined development, which is the only way to break the chains of political despotism and economic and social backwardness. The victorious working class would fight to extend its revolutionary victory to the centers of world imperialism, laying the basis for an international planned economy that would end scarcity. Elementary democratic tasks such as legal equality for women, complete separation of religion and state, agrarian revolution to give land to the peasants—as well as ending joblessness and grinding poverty—cannot be achieved without the overthrow of the capitalist order. The indispensable instrument for the working class is a proletarian revolutionary party, which can be built only through relentless struggle against all bourgeois forces: the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the bourgeois liberals like ElBaradei, who all falsely claim to support the struggles of the masses.
Despite limited land reform carried out in the ’50s and early ’60s by nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, the pattern of land ownership in the region still resembles what it was a century ago. Wealthy landowners possess large tracts of the best land while millions of desperate peasants, unable to scratch out a living on tiny plots of arid land, have settled in the vast shantytowns that ring Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Cairo professionals have cell phones and computers and large numbers of Egyptian workers are concentrated in modern, foreign-owned auto plants. Meanwhile, you have barefoot villagers in the Nile valley tilling their fields with tools that have scarcely changed since the age of the pharaohs. With nearly half the population living on $2 a day or less, popular hatred for Mubarak was definitely driven by the estimated $70 billion fortune amassed by his family. Inhuman poverty and squalor compete with grotesque displays of wealth.
While Egypt is a regional power in its own right, it is nonetheless a neocolony whose brutal and murderous bourgeoisie is tied by a million strings to world imperialism, which benefits from the exploitation, oppression and degradation of the neocolonial masses. Beginning with Sadat’s rule in 1970, Egypt has also been a strategic ally of Zionist Israel and, in recent years, has aided in the starvation blockade of the Palestinians in Gaza, including by sealing the border in Sinai.
Conditions like those in Egypt are what Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the 1917 Russian Revolution, described as uneven and combined development, in which modern industry has been superimposed on largely peasant-based societies. This was also true of Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. Though itself an imperialist power, Russia at the time, unlike the more advanced capitalist countries of West Europe, had not had a bourgeois-democratic revolution and remained mired in social and economic backwardness. Emerging late in the capitalist era, the weak and corrupt Russian bourgeoisie was dependent on Western capital and feared the proletariat far too much to mobilize them for an onslaught against the tsarist autocracy. The autocracy ruled over a vast “prison house of peoples” and a mass of impoverished peasants. At the same time, foreign capitalist investment had given rise to a small but combative industrial working class that was concentrated in modern large-scale industry.
The Russian Revolution was a confirmation of permanent revolution: the working class overthrew bourgeois rule, freed the country from the imperialist yoke, gave land to the peasants and freed the many oppressed nations and peoples of the former tsarist empire. The achievement of democratic tasks was combined with socialist tasks, such as the expropriation of the means of production by the workers state, which laid the basis for the development of a collectivized planned economy. The destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 was a world-historic defeat for working people and the oppressed and enormously strengthened the forces of capitalist reaction on a global scale.
What you learn when you study the Russian Revolution is that the victory of the revolution was possible only because of the Bolsheviks’ irreconcilable struggle against all variants of bourgeois nationalism, populism and liberalism. They struggled against the Menshevik opportunists, who tailed the liberal bourgeoisie, and also against the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionary Party, which was hostile to proletarian class rule. As Lenin put it, “Unity is a great thing and a great slogan. But what the workers’ cause needs is the unity of Marxists, not unity between Marxists, and opponents and distorters of Marxism” [“Unity,” April 1914]. Later I will get to the opponents and distorters of Marxism today who tail the liberal and not-so-liberal bourgeois forces of our day.
So in summary, achieving genuine national and social liberation requires mobilizing the proletariat in revolutionary struggle against both the imperialists and the domestic bourgeoisie. A proletarian revolution in Egypt resulting in a workers and peasants government would have an electrifying impact on workers and the oppressed throughout North Africa, the Near East and beyond. Over one-quarter of all Arabic speakers live in Egypt, a country of over 80 million that has the largest working class in the region.
The Near East: Yesterday and Today
Now you can’t understand the Near East today without understanding that the region was literally carved up following World War I [1914-18] by the British and other colonial powers that drew the borders of Iraq and other countries of the Near East. Winston Churchill, that imperialist pig and major player in this chapter of history, said during WWI, “I think a curse should rest on me because I am so happy. I know this war is smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment—and yet—I cannot help it—I enjoy every second I live.” Following the mass slaughter of the war, the imperialists divvied up the loot. There was a sense of unity between the Arabs of Palestine, including what is today Jordan, and the Arabs of what is now Syria and Lebanon. They were divided into separate countries. In what is now Iraq, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds and Turkmens wanted to live separately. They were forced to live together. The point was to carve up the region in such a way that ethnic and religious strife would perpetually plague it. This new Near East was duly approved by the League of Nations, which Lenin called a “den of thieves.” It served, as the United Nations does today, as a fig leaf for imperialist interests.
Even before WWI was finished, the British and French imperialists divided up the spoils of their impending victory in the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916. The publication of that document by the Soviet workers state exposed the imperialists’ machinations and had an electrifying effect across the region. The Bolshevik Revolution, and its extension to largely Muslim Central Asia in the course of the bloody three-year Russian Civil War [1918-20] against the imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary White armies, triggered a series of national revolts and popular uprisings in the Near East, which was occupied by the British and French imperialists from Egypt through the Fertile Crescent to Iran. In Egypt, as strikes and demonstrations swept the country in 1919, one observer reported that “news of success or victory by the Bolsheviks” in the Russian Civil War “seems to produce a pang of joy and content among all classes of Egyptians.” Also in 1919, open rebellion broke out in the Punjab in India; hundreds were shot down by British troops. The same war criminal Winston Churchill wrote to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs at the time, “The ruin of Lenin and Trotsky and the system they embody is indispensable to the peace and revival of the world.” I hope you have gathered by now that imperialist “peace” is anything but peace.
In this climate of social upheaval coming off WWI, Communist Parties were formed in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Persia, which is Iran today. However, the working class in the Near East at that time was small and the Communist Parties were politically inexperienced. So as a result of both internal weaknesses and external repression, most of these parties had effectively disappeared by the late 1920s.
By the time Communist Parties re-emerged in those countries beginning in the mid 1930s, the now-Stalinized Communist International had long since ceased to be an instrument for world socialist revolution. The defeat of the German revolution in 1923, which was a decisive factor in the isolation of the Soviet Union, and the virtual exclusion of the Trotskyist Left Opposition at the rigged Thirteenth Party Conference in January 1924, which coincided with Lenin’s death, marked the beginning of the Soviet Thermidor. This was the period in which political power was usurped from the proletarian vanguard by a conservative bureaucratic caste whose chief spokesman was Stalin.
The Stalinist bureaucracy repudiated the Bolshevik program of international socialist revolution in adopting the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country.” This was a flat denial of the Marxist understanding that a socialist society could only be built on an international basis, through the destruction of capitalist imperialism as a world system and the establishment of a world socialist division of labor. Under Stalin’s rule, the Communist International was transformed from an instrument for world proletarian revolution into a border guard against imperialist attacks on the Soviet Union. The program and strategy that ensued was class collaborationism, which, following the triumph of Hitlerite fascism, was codified by 1935 as “the people’s front against fascism.” In the colonial world in the lead-up to World War II [1939-45], the Stalinist Communist Parties were transformed into open supporters of the “democratic” imperialists who oppressed the worker and peasant masses.
A series of Arab nationalist regimes came to power coming off the defeat in the 1948 War with Israel, which had thoroughly discredited the imperialist-backed Arab regimes. Arab nationalists used Israel as an external enemy to direct the masses’ anger and frustrations away from their own capitalist oppressors. We defend the Palestinians against the Zionist rulers and their U.S. backers and we also defend them against the Arab capitalist rulers who have played their own bloody part in subjugating and massacring the besieged Palestinian population spread throughout the region. We will not forget the Black September massacre of 10,000 Palestinians by the Jordanian monarchy in 1970. Over and over again history has shown that the Arab bourgeois states are no less an enemy of Palestinian liberation than the Zionist rulers.
Support to Arab nationalism by the Stalinist Communist Parties has led to the bloody defeat of workers movements throughout the Near East, not least in Egypt. Nasser, a bourgeois nationalist, came to power in 1952 with the support of the Egyptian Stalinists. He sought to appeal to the U.S. but was rebuffed, so he turned to the Soviet degenerated workers state for financial, military and political aid. Upon coming to power, Nasser sought to crush the combative Egyptian working class, which was heavily influenced by the Communist Party. But even as he was imprisoning, torturing and killing Communists, the Communist Party continued to support Nasser, liquidating into his Arab Socialist Union in 1965.
Behind this abject capitulation was the Stalinist schema of “two-stage revolution,” which meant postponing the socialist revolution to an indefinite future while in the first “democratic” stage the proletariat is subordinated to an allegedly anti-imperialist national bourgeoisie. But history shows that the “second stage” consists of killing communists and massacring workers. From the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 and Spain in 1936-37 to Iran and Iraq in the 1950s and Indonesia in 1965-66, two-stage revolution has been a recipe for bloody defeats for the working class. [See the Spartacus Youth League pamphlet The Stalin School of Falsification Revisited, 1975.]
Millions of workers who looked to the Communist Parties for leadership in these countries were betrayed by their Stalinist misleaders. In Egypt, such betrayal was sold as support for Nasser’s “Arab Socialism.” But “Arab Socialism” was a myth. What it amounted to was capitalism with heavy state investment. The role Nasser saw for the workers was captured by his statement, “The workers don’t demand; we give.” To curb the combative proletariat, Nasser instituted several reforms, raising wages and reducing unemployment. Eventually, state investment dried up and there was no longer much to “give.” But these reforms created strong illusions in Nasser, which are still prevalent today.
Nasser’s hand-picked successor, Anwar el-Sadat, brought Egypt fully into the fold of American imperialism in the ’70s. After Sadat came to power, the Communist Party sought to reorganize. Sadat responded by unleashing the Muslim Brotherhood to effectively crush them. He expelled Soviet advisers and instituted the “open door” policy of economic liberalization, cutting food and other subsidies. Mubarak and his neoliberal program of mass privatizations took this further and deeper. Contrary to popular illusions, Mubarak did not represent a break from Nasserism, rather its legacy. Under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, Egypt remained subjugated to the imperialist world market and its dictates. The real difference between Nasser and Mubarak is that while Nasser was a genuinely popular bonapartist ruler, Mubarak was widely despised.
Israel and Palestine
Now I want to talk some about the Israel/Palestine question, which is also key to understanding this region. Earlier I mentioned the 1948 War, which resulted in the consolidation of the state of Israel, a creation that arose out of the intersection of the Nazi Holocaust and the dissolution of the British Empire. The expulsion of nearly a million Arabs from Palestine—most of them to squalid refugee camps where they and their descendants live to this day—was also accompanied by a mass migration, which was driven by both the Arab regimes and the Zionists, of the so-called Oriental or Sephardic Jewish population from the Arab countries to Israel. We defend the national rights of the dispossessed Palestinian people against the Zionist butchers and demand the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all Israeli troops and fascistic settler auxiliaries from the Occupied Territories. But we do not thereby deny the right of the Hebrew-speaking nation to exist.
Under capitalism, when two peoples lay claim to the same land—and in this case a very small sliver of land—the right of self-determination can be exercised only by the stronger national grouping driving out, oppressing or destroying the weaker one. This is what Israel, backed by tons of aid from the U.S., does to the Palestinians. In such cases, the only way to assure the right of national self-determination for both peoples lies in overturning capitalist rule and instituting the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the only class that has no interest in perpetuating national antagonisms. We fight to break the Hebrew-speaking workers from the poison of Zionist chauvinism and we fight to break Arab workers from the sway of petty-bourgeois nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.
To have a future free of bloodshed, what is necessary is Hebrew and Arab workers revolution against the murderous Israeli capitalist rulers and all the Arab regimes. We do not pretend that this will be easy, but it is historically possible and necessary. While there are certainly not many cracks in the Zionist citadel today, it is nonetheless a class-divided society. Some 25 percent of its citizens, disproportionately Arabs, live in poverty, and income disparities are higher in Israel than in Egypt or Jordan. Sephardic Jews, though overwhelmingly under the ideological sway of right-wing and religious parties, suffer widespread discrimination and poverty.
Our Leninist program advocates the right of all nations to self-determination, that is, the right to form independent nation-states, which is a basic democratic right. We do not make a distinction on this point between oppressed nations, which get the right to exist, and oppressor nations, which, according to some, do not. There is a widely held position that all Jews in Israel today represent an “occupation.” There is a group called the League for the Revolutionary Party that is active at CCNY. They are crass apologists for Arab nationalism. They argue an idea that is widespread on the left that there are “good” people, that is, the oppressed—one could say the “occupied” people—and “bad” people who are the oppressors and do not even have the right to exist. To speak of an “occupation” as a whole implies that the programmatic consequence is “get rid of them,” which has its own genocidal logic. In contrast to petty-bourgeois moralism, we advance a revolutionary internationalist solution in which all peoples have a right to exist.
When I was growing up as an Israeli American kid, I was taught by my parents all about the Holocaust, the horrific experiences my grandparents had gone through, and that no matter where Jews went in the world the only safe place free from persecution was Israel. In essence, I was taught that I was part of the oppressed people, and I was viewed that way in school. Actually, in ninth grade I had this terrible science teacher who made us get into groups by race. I didn’t want to stand with the white kids because, of course, they were oppressor peoples, and I didn’t know what to do. Then a black student who I was friends with said, “She’s from Israel and that’s near Africa so she’s standing with us.” And that’s what I did. I stood with the black students. A year or so later, I became best friends with an Egyptian student who, along with her brother, shattered my world by informing me that Israel was oppressing the Palestinians. So, I had gone pretty quickly from the “oppressed” peoples to the “oppressor” peoples. Learning the truth about what was happening to the Palestinians—that the Zionist rulers’ mentality toward the Palestinians is like the Nazis’ mentality toward the Jews—changed my whole view of the world. But it was only the Marxist program that decisively enabled me to break from the poison of bourgeois nationalism, which is very deeply ingrained in the consciousness of this region.
In What Is To Be Done? Lenin argues that the revolutionary party must be a “tribune of the people,” the defender of all the oppressed, not just the working class. That means defending the rights of oppressed minorities such as the Coptic Christians in Egypt. It means fighting for free abortion on demand. It means defending the rights of homosexuals against backwardness and religious and moralistic bigotry. And it means fighting anti-Semitism, which is rampant in Arab countries. Often the word “Jew” is used instead of “Zionist,” and still prevalent are centuries-old anti-Semitic themes that the Jews are plotting world domination, the Jews are the embodiment of all evil, and so on.
Capitalist rule fuels these national, ethnic and religious divisions that drive the constant bloodshed that defines the Near East. Marxists seek to shift the axis of struggle from Israeli against Arab to class against class. We stand with Lenin, who wrote: “Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just,’ ‘purest,’ most refined and civilized brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism” [“Critical Remarks on the National Question,” October-December 1913]. This really differentiates us from the slew of other groups that falsely call themselves socialists.
WWP, ISO Tail Arab Nationalism, Anti-Women Reaction
In contrast to our revolutionary program, which is based on and confirmed by the lessons of history, virtually the entire left internationally has offered nothing but empty cheerleading for the “Egyptian Revolution.” This is exemplified by the Workers World Party [WWP] in the U.S., which, as the military took control of the country on February 11, headlined: “WWP Rejoices with the Egyptian People.” In Egypt, the Revolutionary Socialists [RS] group, which is promoted by the International Socialist Organization [ISO, a group active at CCNY], issued a statement on February 1, in which the RS dissolved the power of the working class into the classless demand for “all power to the people” and the call for a “popular revolution.” Left out of the statement is even the mention of the word “socialism.” This same group also appeals to crass Egyptian nationalism, declaring, “Revolution must restore Egypt’s independence, dignity and leadership in the region.”
The RS also fosters suicidal illusions in the Muslim Brotherhood. They try to invest these clericalist forces with “anti-imperialist” credentials and have pursued alliances with them over several years. We know that, whether or not it is currently in a position to make a bid for power, the Muslim Brotherhood represents a deadly danger to the working class, the Coptic Christian minority, all secularists, gays and the brutally oppressed women of Egypt. This is the same Brotherhood that, following the 1948 War, incited mobs that pillaged Jewish businesses, burned synagogues and slaughtered dozens of Jews. Henri Curiel and other leaders of Egyptian Communism were targeted.
The growing influence of these same forces is rightly feared by women in the region, including in Tunisia, where, as a recent article in the New York Times [20 February] described: “Tensions mounted here last week when military helicopters and security forces were called in to carry out an unusual mission: protecting the city’s brothels from a mob of zealots.” Tunisian society is relatively secular in contrast to Egypt and other countries in North Africa and the Near East. For example, many women do not wear the veil and abortion laws are relatively liberal. While the imperialists have used the “war on terror” to prop up “secular” dictators like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, in reality the imperialists have long fostered the growth of Islamic fundamentalism as a bulwark against Communism and even left-bourgeois nationalism. This is no less true of the Arab rulers, who brutally repress the fundamentalists with one hand while promoting them with the other. In a 1994 interview, Ben Ali himself stated, “To some extent fundamentalism was of our own making, and was at one time encouraged in order to combat the threat of communism. Such groups were fostered in the universities and elsewhere at that time in order to offset the communists and to strike a balance.”
Now I want to end this talk with the woman question, as yesterday was International Women’s Day. It is also around the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, many of them immigrant Jewish women, who could not escape the burning building because the bosses had locked the doors to the stairwells.
Today in Egypt, women are a crucial part of the working class, where they have played a leading role in the strikes over the last decade, especially in the textile industry. One of the most dramatic of these was the December 2006 textile strike in Mahalla al-Kobra where more than 20,000 workers went out. It was the women workers who led the strike, walking out as the men continued working. They started chanting outside the plant, “Where are the men? Here are the women!” This had the intended effect, as the men joined them, launching one of the biggest strikes Egypt had seen in years.
At the same time, women’s oppression really is at the heart of Egyptian society. Together with religion, it is rooted in the country’s backwardness, which is reinforced by imperialist subjugation. Forty percent of all women in Egypt are illiterate. Although illegal, female genital mutilation is rampant and equally so among Muslims and Christians. According to the United Nations, 96 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone genital mutilation. Women who protested in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt were more often than not wearing the headscarf. More than 80 percent of women in Egypt wear the headscarf—not by law but by force of a social norm—which is much to the consternation of many of their mothers who courageously fought decades earlier to take it off.
As we wrote in a recent WV article, “The Egyptian woman may be the slave of slaves, but she is also a vital part of the very class that will lay the material basis for her liberation by breaking the chains of social backwardness and religious obscurantism through socialist revolution” [“Egypt: Military Takeover Props Up Capitalist Rule,” WV No. 974, 18 February]. As Trotsky stressed in a 1924 speech, “Perspectives and Tasks in the East,” “There will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the revolution and for the ideas of communism than the awakened woman worker” [reprinted in Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 60, Autumn 2007].
When International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8, 1917, in Russia, women textile workers led a strike of more than 90,000 workers. This signaled the end of tsarist rule and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, which culminated months later in the seizure of power by the working class led by the Bolshevik Party. Today we stand in the communist tradition of the Bolshevik Party and for workers rule from Egypt to the U.S. Join us!